Before the season started, the Toronto Blue Jays were heavily favored to win the American League East. They added pitching depth with reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and acquired shortstop Jose Reyes. They also took a gamble by signing Melky Cabrera, who led the NL in batting until he was suspended for PED usage in 2012.
Despite the addition of these highly-paid players, Toronto has spent most of the season mired in last place.
The Los Angeles Angels made a huge investment on C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols prior to the 2012 season. Wilson was a respectable 13-10 with a 3.83 ERA last season and has won 11 games this year. Pujols was a disappointment in his first season with the Angels as he hit just .285, about 40 points below his career average, and slugged 30 home runs, his fewest ever in a season.
Before going on the DL with a foot injury in July, he was hitting just .258 with 17 home runs.
The Angels again made the biggest free agent splash of this past offseason by offering Josh Hamilton a five-year, $125 million contract. In just over 100 games this year, he is hovering around the .220 mark with just 16 home runs.
Obviously, the team was expecting much better production.
Poor judgment on signing under-productive veteran free agents is costly and can impact a team's performance for years. The New York Mets were saddled with Jason Bay (four years, $66 million) and Johan Santana (six years, $137.5 million) during a time period when team ownership could ill afford under-performing players.
Although he produced big numbers during his first few years in the Bronx and won two MVP awards as a member of the New York Yankees, Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract now is regarded as one of the worst signings in franchise history.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals sustained the losses of both Pujols and future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, yet still continue to field a highly-competitive team. Their farm development system is second to none.
Current manager Mike Matheny's infield is comprised of young players who are making solid contributions: Allen Craig (.318, 11 HR, 86 RBI), Matt Carpenter (hitting .306) and David Freese (2011 World Series MVP). Three homegrown Cardinal pitchers Lance Lynn (13), Adam Wainwright (13) and Shelby Miller (11) are among the NL leaders in wins. MVP candidate Yadier Molina is a lifelong Cardinal. The team has supplemented this core with the additions of productive veterans such as Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday.
Teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds often found it difficult to financially compete in the free agent market and could ill afford to make big mistakes. Their strategy is to lock up their homegrown stars to long-term contracts before the young players get a chance to hit free agency.
The Orioles signed Adam Jones to a six-year extension worth $85.5 million, the largest deal in franchise history. Last year, the outfielder hit a career-best .287 with 32 home runs. Had Jones hit free agency, the demand would have been through the roof for a 26-year-old, "five tool" player. His production this year (.292 with 22 home runs and 77 RBI) has kept Baltimore in playoff contention.
In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays signed pitching prospect Matt Moore to a five-year, $14 million contract. After a solid rookie season, the 24-year-old lefty has gone 14-3 with a 3.41 ERA so far in 2013.
The team offered third baseman Evan Longoria a six-year, $100 million extension at the end of last season, thereby eliminating the risk of losing him to free agency, as was the case of other homegrown stars such as Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton. Assuming the team does not trade him, Longoria will remain a Ray past his 37th birthday. His production has kept them at or near the top of the AL East for most of the season.
Other small market teams have acted accordingly to retain their young stars.
The Reds signed Joey Votto for 10 years at $225 million. The Diamondbacks locked up slugger Paul Goldschmidt for an additional five years and $32 million. The Pirates inked Andrew McCutchen for six years at $51 million and have used their farm system to develop a young pitching staff that boasts the best ERA (3.07) in the Major Leagues.
Richer teams also have followed the formula of retaining their homegrown players.
Jered Weaver accepted a "hometown discount" when he signed a five-year, $85 million contract in the middle of the 2011 season. The Mets, a big market team currently with limited resources, locked up "face of the franchise" David Wright before he could test the free-agent market.
Three MVPs were extended: the Giants signed catcher Buster Posey to a nine-year, $167 million pact, the Tigers gave ace Justin Verlander (still just 30 years old) a five-year, $144M extension that will keep him in Detroit through 2019 and the Red Sox agreed to an eight-year, $110 million extension through 2021 with second baseman Dustin Pedroia.
A number of teams have intriguing decisions to make in the upcoming offseason.
Baseball's home run leader, Chris Davis—not a homegrown player but a breakout star for the Orioles—finishes his one-year, $3.3 million deal. Max Scherzer, who has become an All-Star with the Tigers, also will look for a big raise.
His agent, Scott Boras, will see to it that he gets one.
Lastly, the Yankees will have a decision to make on All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano.
Faced with a roster full of aging, injured and under-performing players, the team will likely have to open the vault to ensure Cano does not leave.
If they don't sign him to a lucrative long-term deal, someone else may do so.
Most successful Major League clubs, with the possible exception of the Dodgers, are making the decision that it is better to overpay a bit for a homegrown player's past rather than to offer huge riches to a player whose previous production has benefited somebody else.
Teams want to avoid overpaying a star player whose best days may be behind him.